Originally posted on Fox Sports Midwest  |  Last updated 12/22/11
ST. LOUIS Michael Dixon rattled in the first of two free throws, and Missouri earned its awaited release. Senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe turned his back on the goal and tapped the junior guard's head, the Tigers' first late-game test passed with 2.5 seconds left. The black-and-gold side of the split Scottrade Center crowd roared. Nearby, Illinois coach Bruce Weber looked on after his aggressive group fell short of ending a two-year losing streak to its border rival. Time expired, and Dixon joined his team near the Tigers' bench in a postgame scene that included rare relief. Ninth-ranked Missouri experienced late-game tension for the first time this season, fending off No. 25 Illinois 78-74 on Thursday in the annual Braggin' Rights game to mark its first victory of fewer than 10 points. Once again, the Tigers' backcourt proved to be a major reason why they continued their perfection. Once again, sophomore guard Phil Pressey had a standout performance he finished with a team-high 18 points and five assists. But Dixon, a junior guard, elevated his play by finishing with 18 points as well six more than his average. His contribution helped the Tigers overcome a charged Fighting Illini squad that sensed an upset after the Tigers squandered a 14-point second-half lead. Despite the struggle, Missouri's undefeated run continues in first-year coach Frank Haith's surprising debut. And so do possibilities when considering the Tigers' potential. "I guess it's good to have a game like this, but we feel like we want to achieve a certain goal toward the end of the season," Dixon said. "We won, but we could have played a little better. Illinois is a good team they fought hard, and they didn't quit. We got up on them, and they made a run. It was pretty helpful for us." The test Thursday could help Missouri, because the Tigers had brushed aside their previous 11 tests. Missouri's closest margin of victory prior to walking out of the Scottrade Center was a 10-point victory over Villanova on Dec. 6. The Tigers' nonconference tear also included routs of 37 points (Kennesaw State on Dec. 15), 38 (William & Mary on Dec. 18) and 39 (California on Nov. 22). Missouri's backcourt helped make those results possible. Entering Thursday, senior guard Marcus Denmon led his team in scoring with 19.6 points per game. Meanwhile, Pressey averaged a team-high six assists. But poor execution at times by Denmon, Pressey and others whittled Missouri's large second-half cushion and gave Illinois reason to believe. As the minutes ticked away, the Tigers appeared rushed playing with the same quick pace that made it seem only an hour earlier as if another 20-plus victory could be possible. During Illinois' second-half surge, Haith appeared strained. With a little more than six minutes left, the coach turned to his assistants with a confused look after Pressey hurried a three-point attempt from the top of the key. About two minutes later, Haith shook his head and stared at the court after one of Denmon's three-point tries bounced off the rim. "In the second half, give Illinois credit," Haith said. "But I also thought we lost some focus on both ends of the court particularly on the offensive end, I thought we took some quick shots. With that said, we lost the lead, and I'm proud of the way of how these guys fought and kept themselves together and found a way to win." Missouri found a way to survive, because they scored nine of the last 13 points in the final two minutes. But the late rush was necessary, because Illinois received production from a surprise source. Sophomore guard Joseph Bertrand entered Thursday as one of the least likely candidates to give the Tigers trouble. He had not scored more than the 11 points he produced in a victory over Lipscomb on Nov. 17. Recently, he had played sparse minutes coming off the bench and went scoreless in five of the Fighting Illini's last six games. But the Sterling, Ill., native found a spark at the Scottrade Center. He finished 9 for 9 from the floor and scored 19 points, sharing the team-high total in the category with junior guard Brandon Paul. Bertrand's performance Thursday was the type of effort Weber knew was possible. Earlier in the week, Weber had a meeting with the struggling player. Weber told him to be more aggressive and make the most of opportunities when given a chance to create an impression. "I can't help you," Weber recalls saying. "You have to come and be a player. If you're a player, you'll be a player." And that's what Bertrand became against Missouri, keeping Illinois close late. In a change from recent games, Weber saw Bertrand show strength around the basket. "The thing he did was straight-line drives to the bucket," Weber said Thursday. "If he just goes up to the bucket, he goes up pretty good." But Bertrand's effort was not good enough to keep Missouri from envisioning a perfect nonconference season. The Tigers finish their schedule against opponents outside the Big 12 on Dec. 30 at Old Dominion. Then, on Jan. 3, they host Oklahoma in their league opener. They can still picture perfection, because they passed their first late-game test. When time expired, Dixon danced near a sideline with senior guard Kim English as Missouri's pep band played its fight song. English and others raised three fingers in the air, representing the number of consecutive victories for the Tigers in the Braggin' Rights series. The victory was far from pretty. But, sometimes, perfection doesn't have to be.
MORE FROM YARDBARKER

Ezekiel Elliott: Cowboys don’t play for ‘the talking heads’

Todd Gurley says Rams believe they can win Super Bowl

Seven players who stood out in Rams' thrilling win over 49ers

Rams WRs Sammy Watkins, Tavon Austin evaluated for concussions

Alec Ogletree throws 49ers player to the ground

LIKE WHAT YOU SEE?
GET THE DAILY NEWSLETTER:

WATCH: Pierre Garcon tips his toes for beautiful highlight reel catch

Aaron Donald called for horrible roughing the passer penalty

Brilliant pass-and-catch from Goff, Watkins highlight TNF

Gordon Hayward: Isaiah Thomas had big role in recruiting me to Boston

Arkansas RB Whaley will play despite reported fight with teammate

Pockets of empty seats for Rams-49ers on Thursday

WNBA Finals preview: Lynx look for revenge against Sparks

The 'Chris Sale joins an elite club' quiz

Three Up, Three Down: The home runs just keep on coming

Building on the NFL's positive changes beyond 2017

NFL Week 3 predictions

The 'MLB is as powerful as ever' quiz

After a decade in the WNBA, MVP Sylvia Fowles is ready for the spotlight

College football 2017 Week 4 predictions

10 teams that can unseat the Warriors in 2018

NFL Referee Hotline: Mike McCarthy is sick of these calls

The 'Kevin Durant has mad (Twitter) handles' quiz

Baseball's most underwhelming teams of 2017

College Basketball News
Delivered to your inbox
You'll also receive Yardbarker's daily Top 10, featuring the best sports stories from around the web. Customize your newsletter to get articles on your favorite sports and teams. And the best part? It's free!

By clicking "Sign Me Up", you have read and agreed to the Yardbarker Privacy Policy and Terms of Service. You can opt out at any time. For more information, please see our Privacy Policy.

WNBA Finals preview: Lynx look for revenge against Sparks

Three Up, Three Down: The home runs just keep on coming

The 'Chris Sale joins an elite club' quiz

Building on the NFL's positive changes beyond 2017

NFL Week 3 predictions

After a decade in the WNBA, MVP Sylvia Fowles is ready for the spotlight

The 'MLB is as powerful as ever' quiz

10 teams that can unseat the Warriors in 2018

College football 2017 Week 4 predictions

NFL Referee Hotline: Mike McCarthy is sick of these calls

Today's Best Stuff
For Publishers
Company Info
Help
Follow Yardbarker